Get Out (2016) – Film Review

Get Out is a marvel of a movie in an age where explosions and VFX are the main magnets that pull popular audiences out and into a comfy multiplex armchair. On the surface, both in the trailers and in the first act build-up, it’s a story about characters and social interactions. It plays off cultural stereotypes and commonly misused/abused racial phrases, contrasting some very real and at times shocking attitudes without pulling any punches. Yet it all seems too on the button, too hyper-focused and self-aware to be a movie that’s just about a family not accepting their daughters black boyfriend. And it’s not just that; there’s much more to it.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, an excited but hyper-nervous boyfriend. He leans on his girlfriend, Rose, played by Allison Williams, helping to ease her worries through cute jokes and quips. Rose’s innocent, red-cheeked demeanor feels like a sort of android or human replicant that acts exactly like a stereotypical white college girlfriend acts. She’s way too accommodating to him; there isn’t any real drama between the two of them, only love and kisses, smoke and mirrors.

021317-video-Celebs-Get-out-Movie-Stills-3

The films marketing campaign focused heavily on the concept of a white young woman bringing her dark-skinned, African-American boyfriend out to the families farm estate.

The advertisements didn’t reveal much about the intricate plot details. With a very reasonable budget of 4.5 million, the producers of Get Out were hoping that, as a hybrid 2017 horror movie, the film would work best as a word-of-mouth product as opposed to releasing it in a more traditional manner through relentless TV marketing.

The studios certainly didn’t need to buy big TV ad spots in the end. As of mid-April, Jordan Peele’s horror film has grossed an impressive 184 million.

With overwhelming critical approval and praise, as well as the instant name recognition stemming from Peele’s hit show, Key & Peele, the film’s producers had very good reason to take a step back and let the quality of the movie speak for itself.

Director Jordan Peele has always professed a love for horror films, good or bad or atrociously bad. He has also expressed his fairly unique perspective on race. Peele is a half black man raised by and growing up alongside a predominantly white family.

A major part of Get Out involves small interactions between Chris and Rose’ parents’ white, country-club friends. These encounters are sometimes staged bluntly for comedic effect or in a more subtle manner to help build ambiguity and mystery.

B6_GetOut_youtube

At times, the social satire veers towards being a bit too transparent, such as when the father, Dean Armitage, played by Bradley Whitford, insists to Chris that he would definitely vote for Obama for a third term, if he could.

A white man complimenting an African-American man on his “prowess” or “muscular strength” may appear to be a compliment at face-value, but those on the receiving end of the compliments clearly feel uncomfortable. They feel like they are being evaluated. It’s as if their body and entire being are being mentally measured and weighed for current or potential value, similar in a way to the extreme scouting tactics used on young, pre-teen athletes.

The story arc comes and goes without any lingering moments dragging down the fast-paced narrative. The first half introduces us to the characters and scenarios, giving the audience time to think about the direction of the story, to ponder about the potential twists and turns. Peele buys himself enough time in the first half of the movie to convince the audience that we know what kind of movie we’re watching, only to have the rug firmly pulled out from under us in the final act.

Some of the plot points don’t entirely add up, though I won’t go into spoiler territory. I think It’s important, though, to think more about the social and cultural messages rather than the labyrinthian, complex narrative.

The story details don’t 100% hold up upon multiple viewings, but the entertainment value remains the same. There’s plenty to talk about, and part of the fun is seeing it with someone for the first time and helping them fill in the pieces to the puzzle. Compared to the multitude of uninspired and unoriginal horror films being punched out these days, Get Out should get an oscar nom.

Overall, Get Out is a thoughtful look at race relations in America. It’s both funny and bleak in the way that it shatters stereotypes that people still commonly use to this day. A piercingly bold and occasionally frightening ride through the eyes of a young African-American man.

Whiplash (2014) – Film Review

 

“Whiplash”, a deservedly praised, knockout hit, is the first feature film of Damien Chazelle, a clearly talented young director. It follows a college-aged drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, as he struggles to achieve his highly ambitious musical goals.

Young and consumed by equal parts doubt and confidence, Andrew ends up in the crazed hands of a vulgar, extremely intense composer and instructor, Terrence Fletcher, brilliantly played by a wide-eyed, spit yelling J.K. Simmons.

The film explores the pressures put upon those who participate in elite, highly-competitive orchestras. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, has had direct experiences within the field of musical performance.

The movie has a very specific idea that it poses to us on an even narrative strand throughout its running time. And that is: how far should a person be pushed and pressured towards absolute perfection? Is there such a thing as too far? Is  being healthy but lesser better than being great but maniacal?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and that’s what makes them compelling to both ask and watch unfold, as Andrew is humiliated and berated by his teacher in order to come out the other side as the best drummer he can possibly be (which he would never know, the film asserts, if he wasn’t pushed in the first place).

The screaming dialogue fiercely performed by J.K. Simmons must have been a riot to sit down and actually write. It seems like such a contradiction to see a man teaching beautiful and archaic symphonies one minute, and then violently screaming imaginatively-worded obscenities the other.

Andrew walks into a bar late one night after recognizing his old instructors name plastered on the marquee outside. We witness Terrence actually performing, his face calm, his eyes closing slightly in an unusually serene expression of peace.

The feisty former instructor seems very much at ease as he plays the melodic piano music. But what does the man love the most? The literal sound of the music or the sense of perfection felt from hitting all the right keys? Does he cherish his abilities in contrast to all of the cues his students fail to hit?

A Most Violent Year (2014) – Film Review

A Most Violent Year focuses on a few small pixels in a larger, more dangerous canvas of events. Set in New York City in the year 1981, where crime-rates are quickly rising to an epidemic level, the story sets its eye on an immigrant man, Abel, as we follow his bumpy ride up towards his homegrown American dream.

The film stars a stone-faced Oscar Isaac, playing the ambitious immigrant as a mix of quiet intensity and disgruntled vulnerability. It’s hard for him to accept even the most simplest of things. Alongside him is Jessica Chastain as his shady wife. Chastain’s scenes with Isaac’s Abel are absolute dynamite, a constant battle of wits and ego sparking off of each other. Two of the best young actors/actresses working today.

A-Most-Violent-Year-movie (1)

The films premise is basically a sub-plot from a lot of other sprawling, ensemble mobster flicks. Remember in Goodfellas, when Jimmy Conway holds up a delivery truck, unloads the goods, and drives away? Well, that’s essentially the main problem in A Most Violent Year, only it’s shown from the microcosmic perspective of the driver and the effect such thievery has on that particular company.

There are a few other key distinctions between the two, though. In Goodfellas, the drivers are complicit: they aren’t getting paid enough to risk being shot in the face, and it’s usually made mutually-beneficial for them anyways. In A Most Violent Year, the driver is a young immigrant man whose not complicit, doesn’t want to be robbed.

The face and owner of the company, Abel, doesn’t want his drivers to back down, although he doesn’t want them to be armed, either. So, waxing in an intelligently cyclical manner, he’s essentially explaining to his low-end drivers that they should be willing and prepared for possible injury or death while delivering the many gallons of oil that will one day make him rich; a very morbid pep speech by any standard.

Through the course of the movie, Abel’s character slowly shapes and grows into his true dimensions. With each conversation or argument he has with others, we’re given small chunks of information about his past; the fact that he’d bought the company from his wife’s father, or that he himself used to be a driver.

It’s these small, subtlety placed nuggets that change not only our perception of him as a character, but also the overall tone of the film as well. With each piece of new knowledge, we cast increasing doubt on the legitimacy and honesty of Abel and his business.

With breathtaking cinematography and a handful of brilliantly brooding performances, A Most Violent Year is an unusually intelligent and entertaining mob film.

Birdman (2014) – Film Review

2_img_inset

I really liked this movie, especially the first experience of it, the whirlwind of energy and movement rushing you into the middle of this man’s world. I don’t like to sum up a film with this sort of overzealous simplicity, but there are just so many brilliant touches in this story that make it so relatable and real. Birdman’s plight into obscurity is a fall everyone and anybody can relate to. He’s frustrated that nothing, even the most important something, according to his inner self, doesn’t last, leaving him alone, not knowing how to react to not only the journey itself, but the conclusion of it. What’s next?

Michael Keaton stars as the titular “Birdman”, or Riggan, and he gives an incredible performance, shifting and wiggling around all of the unique supporting and supportive characters, though none of them can outshine his tweaked-out body spasms and off-kilter, narrow expressions that are his trademark. A certain parallel that I as a viewer noticed that an actual stage performer might just think about on the daily: the backstage dramas feel much more authentic and compelling than the acting onstage. The relaxed, spontaneous feel of the actors after a scene reading has a lot to do with the amount of great acting talent in “Birdman”.

Emma Stone plays Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh out of rehab and working as his assistant; Naomi Watts plays Lesly, a slightly thin-skinned but ambitious Broadway actress sexually tied with the new hotshot actor, played by Edward Norton, who’s hired following a set “accident” that calls for a hasty replacement. Zack Galifianakis plays Riggan’s press agent and sort-of friend, Jake. Though this isn’t entirely the case, as the onstage goofs provide a lot of great tension and some very exhilarating moments, I think this idea is one of the main overarching themes in the film.

The idea that the best drama happens in reality, when the lens is capped and the lights are off; to not only act like the actor, but also feel as they would. Mike, played by Edward Norton as a dry and dauntlessly crude theater purist, is a believer in this theory, in this whacky form of method acting. He drinks actual gin for the drinking scenes, and he’s got an actual boner right on cue for the sensual, under-the-sheets scene with Lesly, who had complained earlier that he hasn’t been able to get it up in months in real life.

Riggan actually seems to come around to Mike’s acting philosophy towards the end, even if he may not be entirely aware of it. Standing in his dressing room with his ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, he randomly spurts out that he regrets videotaping Sam’s birth, that he would’ve rather been actively present for the moment.

Keaton’s filmography is easily comparable to his character in “Birdman”, an aging actor famous for once playing a superhero, but I wonder if this could potentially pose as a distraction from the story itself; instead of focusing on the showering of ideas about self-worth and creative egoism, one might be spending most of their time pondering the parallels between the character and the man, Keaton himself. A constant back-and-forth dialogue between a real actor’s filmography and personality, the character’s filmography and personality, and the line the audience chooses to draw between the two.

I’ve wondered if the director of “Birdman”, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is trying to express some sort of meta-critique of the media by casting Keaton in the role. Was he trying to show how comfortable we are as a society to sum up a person’s career in such a shallow, conclusive manner, comparing and rating all that has come before and consider it less than the sum of its parts, that this one single film anchored his sagging legacy back to shore? Because from all the press and news articles I’ve read, sometimes from only scanning the headlines, the answer to such a question is a definite ‘yes’.

To say that this film is a ‘comeback’ for Keaton or ‘the best Michael Keaton movie in years’ sort of does a disservice to all of the work Mr. Keaton’s done in the last ten or so years; it’s the sort of complimentary-insult that the actual character of Riggan would probably obsessively struggle and wrestle with; maybe in the sequel, Birdman Again: For Dignity’s Sake, we’ll find out how he conquers his self-esteem issues.

 While Riggan is being interviewed about his career-saving play, he’s snobbishly questioned about the merit of a spandex-star like himself actually helming a real, live stage performance. He responds in the standard circular non-talk of a public person that doesn’t want to upset or imply anything that could negatively affect themselves or their cause; or, he’s just been out of the game for so long, he forgot how to go through the motions and produce the gaseous, breezy movie star charm.

It’s a unique type of audience involvement, a new layer to contemplate in the intricately woven tapestry of it all. It’s not the first time a movie juxtaposed an actor’s real-life or career with a film’s story, but it will certainly go down as one of the best and most conclusive of this most likely nonexistent micro-genre.

From a technical point of view, “Birdman” soars as much as the characters and storytelling. Consisting mostly of a single continuous take, the camera darts in and out of rooms, rising slowly upwards to the tops of buildings, trailing, following. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki uses clandestine cuts and convenient object placement to momentarily cloud the camera, cut, and resume in the same fixed, object-blocked position, supporting the illusion of a never-ending sequence. It’s a basic cinematic technique in most cases, but yet the simplicity of it depends on the scope of the camera movement.

With aerial shots and multiple characters to track alongside with, the setups had to have been as calculated and choreographed as a hundred-million dollar battle sequence. Compared to Hitchcock’s one-shot, single location film, “Rope”, “Birdman” is quite groundbreaking in its uncut use of so many different locations. The entire movie was filmed in a swift thirty days, and similar to the great director Sidney Lumet, Iñárritu prepared for the shoot far ahead of time, setting aside several weeks for rehearsing and perfecting the scene layouts with his large ensemble cast.

If anybody tries to knock a movie for a quick shoot, they most likely just don’t understand how it works, and how a shorter shoot simply means lower production costs. Any amount of time that can be cut off of the shooting schedule is time well-spent, as many more experienced than I would confirm.

Using the one-take structure for this particular story can be reasoned many different ways, all of them, in my opinion, being very defensible. As Edward Norton’s character says to Riggan’s daughter, Sam, “This is the theater, don’t be so self-conscious.”

The constant scrutiny of the omnipresent camera heightens the pressure on the characters, and increases the tension and urgency for the viewer. We won’t be saved from awkwardness or intense outbursts by a fade-to-black or a sudden cut to a future moment in time.

We are with these people completely, sharing, in a sense, the same vantage point, the same rambunctious moments leading up to the big opening night. It adds to the rolling impact of it all, which, by the end, we can see and understand it to be the embodiment of what the millennial generation allegedly wants — completely unfiltered and exploitative videos, devoid of any dignity or logic.

Spoiler warning:

The ambiguous, cut-short ending leaves something to chew on, and yet at the same time, not really all that much at all. The bandages wrapped around Riggan’s nose seem to intentionally evoke a bird’s beak, long and pointed. But the deep, hoarse voice is completely absent as he lays quietly alone on the hospital bed.

All of the moments Riggan’s Birdman ego had previously voiced its opinion, Riggan was in a similar situation as his current one at the hospital: interior silence, not being directly near any of the films other main characters.

So has Riggan transformed following this shocking, traumatic ordeal? He’s a changed man, right? His two combating personalities are seemingly done with the banging-heads routine, but who surrendered? The “God” of a man, The Birdman himself, or the aged, apologetic father, regular-old Riggan?

The act of hurling himself out of the window destroys half of his dual self; if he’s not truly Birdman, he’s Riggan the mortal, in his new pavement-splattered form. If he’s Birdman, he’s zooming around in circles in the air outside. And if he’s flying up above the hospital, as his daughter Sam, leaning out of the window and smiling proudly up towards the sky seems to be indicating, then has he transformed into the full-blown manifestation of Birdman?

My best guess:

Riggan lives and continues his life as a born-again cultural icon, a walking statue, now gladly willing to reap the benefits of his gloriously remembered years of youth, cheerfully posing for family pictures, attending Birdman retrospectives and Comic-cons. He’s retired from the constant stress of showmanship, and feels fine continuing on the remainder of his days talking about the thing, even if the thing is still just the thing, and not whatever it is that he or they say the thing is right now at this moment.

Bob the Gambler, Bob le Flambeur (1956) – Film Review

bob gamblerDirected by Jean-Pierre Melville

Bob the Gambler was the first Melville movie I’d ever seen, and as most said it was an uncharacteristic piece for him, I was a little sad; I really liked the movie and wanted to dive into other Melville films that were just as quirky and sly as this one.

The film is about a man named Bob, and yes, he’s a gambler; he has a gaming slot machine in his closet, a little taste he indulges in at home for fun, and spends a lot of his time in gambling houses and casinos.

Bob has had one stint in prison and we find out that he’s got a bit of a guardian angel in the form of a cop. He gets picked up in a police car for a generous ride; one of the cops wants to make sure he stays out of trouble. He has them drop him off a couple blocks before his destination though, so as to not hurt his reputation.

Bob has a young apprentice, Paolo, a quasi son of sorts, but without any consent or censoring between them. He tries to keep Paolo out of trouble, or at least out of the hands of hotheads and their criminal schemes. The atmosphere and sense of place is a movie-lovers dream. The misty streets, long, narrow roads filled with high light-posts, and small little bars where people go in as fast as they pour out; ideal surroundings for a man who fancies himself a gangster.

Bob has started to run out of money as a result of his obsessive gambling, and when a friend tells him how much money a certain Casino holds in their safe, he instantly decides he wants to rob it. But he doesn’t act on sudden impulse like a lowly street hood, he tightly plans it out.

He hires distractions, men to hold-up the staff, and a professional safe-cracker; one of the more clever scenes involves the gang standing around the safe-cracker as he uses an amplifier to listen to the small clicks and movements of the combination lock, practicing for the future head-to-head with the real lock, the one that matters. He needs to softly listen for all the right internal whistling gizmos and clicks, while at the same time keeping in mind the need for it to be cracked under four minutes.

Bob      The plan and heist, of course, brings with it some very real obstacles. Earlier in the story, a young hothead, Marc, gets tangled around some trouble and the police subsequently offer him a deal: if he leads them to a bigger, top-of-the-top racket, and said tip results in a legitimately successful arrest, they’ll drop the charges against him.

Paulo, even after Bob tells him never to tell a dame their plans, goes off and brags about their upcoming plans. Then, when Paulo’s girl plays around with Marc behind his back, she tells him this, not thinking Paulo is going to go through with it, and, of course, Marc tips the police. One-by-one, the domino’s fall on top of Bob’s carefully articulated plans.

A heavy dose of irony presents itself towards the end, while Bob’s a bit distracted; his strict schedule for the heist is interrupted once he begins winning considerable sums at the tables, at the exact casino he’s about to attempt to steal eighty-million from. During the entire course of the film poor Bob has the worst of luck: It’s only good when his luck is just moments away from tipping back to the ‘bad’ spectrum.

Hitchcock Films: Dial M For Murder

Dial-M-for-Murder

I was more entertained by ‘Dial ‘M’ For Murder’ than I expected to be. I went into the film knowing that it isn’t considered to be a top-tier Hitchcock film. It doesn’t have the exciting thrills or the grandness of Hitchcock’s Cary Grant movies, but it’s a solidly constructed character piece.

The film takes place in a single apartment loft. It is essential for anyone interested in how to properly stage actors in close quarters for a long period of time: there isn’t a single shot duplicated throughout the run-time of the film.

The pure ingenuity of the camera movement is very apparent, considering that there’s only ten or so feet to work with in a cramped loft.
Hitchcock, his DP and crew discover new techniques to mask the moving camera or dolly, making a small, claustrophobic room feel like a vibrant, perpetually-changing wheelhouse.

It involves a man, Tony, an older ‘Edward G.Robinson’ kind of individual, who wants to execute a plan to kill his wife. His wife is also harboring a behind-the-curtains relationship with Mark Halliday, a younger, more exuberant character. It’s hard to believe that Tony doesn’t know about the cheating happening all around him. Mark is constantly hanging out at the loft, quietly flirting with his wife behind his back.

As the audience, we know who the murderer is from the very beginning: we see him orchestrate a detailed plan, and Hitchcock cares about making us care about the plans details. That way, when a pin drops and the plan doesn’t go as planned, we’ll know and be watching for it.

Tony plans to take his wife’s key to the loft and hide it underneath the staircase rug. He can use his own key to get into the apartment, thus proving he didn’t give away his key.

Tony hires an old friend to retrieve the key, open the apartment, and strangle his wife. The plan goes smoothly, no stains or residue left behind. No signs of a break-in or convenient marks to aid the detectives in their search.

Eventually, through all the grey area and intrigue, Tony’s plan breaks apart completely. He now must race to insure that nobody discovers the man he just recently hired to harm his wife. Among those fighting on the offensive against Tony is, naturally, Mark Halliday, the third angle of the triangle.

A Dangerous Method (2011) – Film Review

There is a hope that Director David Cronenberg wouldn’t turn Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud into the archetypes they’ve come to define, and he definitely does not, thankfully; it’s the sharpest detour from his usual style since his standout drama “A History of Violence”. It features some great period costume details and a series of performances from loads of versatile talent, including Michael Fassbender as Jung; a psychotic storm of a performance from Kiera Knightly and some slightly subdued acting from Viggo Mortenson as Freud.

The movie is pulsating with humanity and compassion, yet still extremely engaging. It involves a patient turned-affair between Jung and Sabina, and the anger and self-hatred that ensues following the trajectory of said affair; a sort of growth in Jung’s own person, a feeling of a massive hole in the world, an absence of any real answers. Letters are sent conspicuously between Freud, Sabina, and Jung. The characters interweaving stories combined with their well-known sensibilities pulls the narrative briskly forward.

The different schools of thought between the two famous psychologists fuels a sort of competitive tension throughout. Freud says at one point, as Jung and he dwell on the deck of a ship, that he had a dream. But when Jung asks him about it, he refuses to tell him it in fear of it diminishing his authority, as he is usually the one saying what is and isn’t wrong with a person. It reveals Freud’s desire to make psychoanalysis legitimate by not following Jung’s phenomenological theories, or fairy tales, which he felt would make psychoanalysis look unscientific.

The movie was wrongfully cut off from the Oscar parade, I would say. It was very much one of my favorite films of 2011. A deep, intellectual study of psychological and sexual obsessions, as well as an enchanting showcase for Kiera Knightley’s ample dramatic abilities.